England were never going to end up in an easy group for the World Cup in Russia but they may have landed one of the best possible games to kick off the tournament with.
Gareth Southgate’s team will go up against Tunisia in their opening fixture of the finals and, as first group fixtures go, it could have been a lot, lot worse.
The two teams met previously at the 1998 World Cup, where goals from Paul Scholes and Alan Shearer helped England make the best possible start to the finals.
It should be a similar story here, with Tunisia heading into their first World Cup since 2002 and boasting little in the way of European pedigree.
Though Tunisia remain a solid force in the African Cup Of Nations, where they regularly reach the knockout phase, they have never made it to the last 16 of the World Cup and their squad is primarily built around players based in the Tunisian domestic league.
That squad of players may have gone unbeaten in African World Cup qualifying but they remain an untested force against European and South American opposition and lack the same firepower going forward as the likes of Senegal, Nigeria and Egypt.
Even Morocco, under the enigmatic two-time African Cup of Nations-winning coach Herve Renard, would have been a tougher test.
In terms of superstars, arguably Tunisia’s best player is Wahni Khazri, who was part of the Sunderland team that was relegated from the Premier League last season.
A tricky but ultimately inconsistent star known to down tools when the going got tough, Khazri moved on to Rennes on loan in France last summer and has flourished with four goals in seven Ligue 1 appearances this term. Even so, the French top-flight lacks the pace and cutting edge of the Premier League and he could struggle to make the same impact as part of an inexperienced Tunisia team.
England will follow that game up with a match against Panama, a team made-up of thirty-something journeyman, who were fortunate to reach the finals, beating out Team USA to the final automatic qualifying spot thanks, in part, to a goal against Costa Rica that didn’t even cross the line.
Southgate will expect to get maximum points from those two games, giving the Three Lions the perfect platform to build confidence ahead of a possible group decider against Belgium, the group’s toughest prospect.
With England getting something close to what would have been the perfect draw, the toughest opponent the Three Lions may end up facing in those first two games may ultimately end up being themselves.
It’s clear that England struggle for confidence and composure on the biggest stage and that fragility has been exposed in several tournaments over the years. This could be different though. There is a notable gulf in class between England’s squad and the squads of Panama and Tunisia.
Picking up points, wins, goals and confidence could mean England fans finally, after so long, might have something to sing about.
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